Gay teen-agers face special perils, conference is told


At the boarding school he attended, Jonathan's classmates dismissed anything they disliked with a simple put-down, "Oh, that's so gay."

But for Jonathan, a gay teen-ager, the slur struck deep. He was not only taunted for being honest about his identity, he was daily reminded that it was anathema to his peers.

"It wasn't just that I was personally picked on, the whole atmosphere was homophobic," said Jonathan, 20, a sophomore at a local college who asked to remain anonymous. "I was lucky there was a teacher at the school who I was close to. She must have seen the struggle I was going through and she told me, very subtly, there were organizations which could help."

Jonathan was one of several speakers at a weekend conference, "Affirming Diversity II," at the Woodlawn Ramada Inn. The conference, sponsored by several regional AIDS organizations -- including the AIDS Administration of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the AIDS Program Office of the Delaware Division of Public Health -- drew more than 100 educators, counselors and health care professionals to lectures and workshops on the special needs of sexual minority youth.

"At the conference last year, we opened up the discussion on sexual minority [gay and lesbian] youth," said John Hannay, a youth outreach worker for the Maryland AIDS Administration. "This year, we are focusing on what's happening in the schools and building our skills as counselors and educators."

Jonathan underscored the importance of helping gay and lesbian youths accept themselves when he discussed SMYAL, the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League.

He met adults there who not only encouraged him to feel good about who he was but who also helped him see sexual identity as more than bedroom activities.

"For me, gay consciousness began to develop when I went to the library," said Jonathan, who is black. "Reading books on gays and lesbians, I had the same sense of awakening I had from watching "Roots" on television.

"Another facet where adults helped me had to with love. I learned that love was not a sexual activity but a consciousness of loving people and being loved."

Loving and accepting oneself as well as confronting homophobia were themes sounded by several conference speakers. Lisa Schwartz, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania Counseling Center, noted gay youth are "ignored and invisible." Many internalize anti-gay attitudes that lead to self-destructive behavior, she said.

Those behaviors, which Mr. Hannay addressed in a workshop, include risks of sexually transmitted diseases, substance abuse and suicide.

"A lot of the research is anecdotal," Mr. Hannay said. "But some scientific research around HIV infection indicates 30-40 percent of young people are infected because of unprotected homosexual activity.

"It was also theorized, in a report done by the U.S. Health and Human Services department in 1989, that as many as 30 percent of young people who commit suicide do so because of isolation around [gay and lesbian] sexual identity issues."

Speakers suggested teachers and counselors tackle sexual identity issues head-on rather than allowing gay students to feel isolated.

Educators were also urged to seize "teaching moments" -- discussing the lesbian involvement on the television show "L.A. Law" or the gay dimension of works by Walt Whitman or James Baldwin.

Several conference participants, who came from as far away as Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia, said they were hoping to learn counseling skills not taught in graduate school.

"If a student says, 'I am gay and having problems,' I should be prepared to handle that," said Judith Jenkins, a guidance counselor at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia. "Everyone should have this kind of training because you see all types of behavior that have their roots in sexual identity."

The conference, which drew some public criticism after a radio talk show host, Les Kinsolving, discussed it on the air last week, was sponsored by 27 public and private organizations. The state AIDS Administration contributed about $1,800 to conference costs, which are estimated to be $13,500.

"The department stand is to reach out to any population that is potentially a high-risk population to make absolutely certain that they understand the risk," said Bob Eastridge, an acting deputy secretary of the state's department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "The purpose of the conference is to help educators, counselors and people who are dealing with young people help them be prepared for some of the problems they will be facing."

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